AdoptMent works on goal-setting

In this same workshop we also revisited the topic of brain development. We reviewed the difference between the prefrontal cortex or “White House of the brain,” which has the ability to plan for the future, and the amygdala or “reptile brain” that reacts instinctively in fight/flight/freeze fashion.

This helped to introduce the concept of time perspective. Using part of the framework developed by Stanford professors Zimbardo and Boyd, we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of being either a “present hedonist” or a future-oriented individual. Everyone agreed that it was best to live a balanced life.

Since future orientation is the time perspective that most young people generally need to cultivate, we talked about how athletes who are off season or injured often use visualization as a way to “stay in the game.” Our young people learned that going through the motions in your brain actually improves your muscle memory and the chances of you succeeding in whatever actions you plan to take in the future.

We then dimmed the lights and I led a the group in a guided visualization of a day when they hit all their goals and “earned all the points” they needed. I asked them to sit with the feeling of accomplishment and self-pride. This was the first time that I’ve ever done this exercise, and I did not realize how powerful it would be. One person emerged from the activity with a peaceful aura, but two others became quite emotional. This was a moment when I was especially grateful for the clinical staff in the room. Talk about cathartic!

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Decision-making with an #emergingleader

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Emerging Leader Maurice came into office hours last week wearing his red power tie. Our initial plan was to unpack his “hustle” from the Work On Purpose workshop we did in our last Emerging Leaders meeting, but he announced that he wanted to share some “good news” and a “dilemma,” which were in fact related. It turned out that Maurice needed to choose between two very different housing options that each appealed to conflicting values, and the decision was overwhelming him. With his permission, I’m sharing some of the details of our meeting because it contains an exercise that might prove useful to the young people you work with (or to you yourself, if you’re in the market for a decision-making tool).

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Another exciting guest blogger!

I am very excited for my next guest blogger, who promises to post her thoughts within the next couple of days on work development programs for young people. Steph Cowling is a very dear friend who goes about program design in a thoughtful manner. A strong moral compass guides her approach to youth work. What is especially striking about her work is her natural habit of reflexivity: No aspect of program design is taken as a given. She will push you to consider the why and the how. She will illuminate the systematic implications of your decisions and decipher the coded messages your actions convey. She is, in short, a treasure. I always walk away from what she calls our “heart- and brainstorms” enriched and inspired. So you, dear readers, are in for a treat!

The ethics of program design in youth development

One of the higher compliments anyone can pay me for my work is something along the lines of “I would love to take that workshop myself!” or “My high school- / college-aged kid could use that program!” or better yet, “Everyone could use a program like that.” Technically, I design programs for so-called “at-risk” youth, but all that really means is being sensitive to certain needs and understanding the institutional context of their lives. What I am actually striving to create are programs with a much wider appeal—wider because in the end they aren’t aimed at “troubled youth,” but at our shared humanity.

As human beings we all unfold in our own time, and that process is never smooth or evenly-paced. Some of us encounter great challenges very early on. This may appear to “set us back,” but only if we succumb to the bad habit of measuring ourselves against others, or—more accurately—against some kind of social norm that demands we be self-sufficient and clearly on our way to some narrow, preconceived notion of success by our mid-twenties. Another view is to approach these challenges as tests. And if we have the tools and the space to reflect on those significant life experiences, we can use them as learning opportunities and even a source of strength.

Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities?

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They call themselves the Emerging Leaders

Emerging Leaders

[For Harry, who also believes] In the past year I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a lot of inspiring young people who have been in foster care and have creative ideas for businesses and programs that would improve the lives of our most vulnerable children and families. Three such individuals serve as youth advisors to Minds On Fire. To help them grow professionally, I started funneling resources to them individually, but it eventually hit me that I could easily scale my efforts. So I reached out to other young people I’d met and also asked some colleagues for referrals. The only requirements were that participants have direct experience with foster care and aspire to start a social enterprise or run a nonprofit organization.

We had our first meeting back in September (in AlleyNYC‘s War Room, bien sûr!) and the energy was electric. One person remarked that it was so energizing to meet other young people in foster care who were going to college and intending to give back to their communities. After a particularly joyous meet and greet we talked about my initial idea for the group, and also what everyone else wanted to get out of our meetings. They’re permitting me to do most of the steering in the beginning in order to lay a solid foundation on which we can build.

My primary objective is to expose these young people, who are currently between the ages of 19 and 26, to as many resources, professionals, and ideas related to social entrepreneurship as possible. These are the tools that will enable them to blaze trails into the business world and the child welfare system. What I also hope will happen is that the emerging leaders begin to see themselves as part of a cohort that will support each other’s dreams and perhaps even collaborate on some projects. The underlying belief is that they are the ones who will solve the biggest problems in child welfare because, having grown up in the system, they know its pain points. What’s more, they’re coming out of foster care resilient, observant, impassioned, streetwise, and compassionate. They are the ones who have the capacity to touch and transform our hardest to reach youth. Continue reading

YAB Project Management Boot Camp

YAB bootcamp

   Credit: Lindsay Adamski

If you want an inside look on how I develop my material and roll out new workshops, here is a case study. Last Sunday several members of NYFC YAB, accompanied by Lindsay Adamski (a.k.a., ladamski), joined me at AlleyNYC for a four-hour project management bootcamp. (Yes, you read that right: four hours on a Sunday. It was their suggestion. They are intense, these folks.) The aim was to finish the work that we started at the retreat back in August on the YAB Project Management Manual, which like their constitution, is co-authored by YAB and me. My model for this was the OCFS Handbook for Youth in Foster Care, which incorporates the voices of young people in care in every chapter. I especially liked how the handbook defines terms using the words of youth in foster care.

YAB does a terrific job of referring to a printed copy of their constitution during their meetings, and the manual is definitely supposed to act as a guide for every step of the project management process: brainstorming, project selection, planning, execution, and ending (termination, completion, and administration). Each section has handy tools and tips for success. We’re also making it available in digital format, however, because the manual is intended as a living document that they can edit over the years by modifying, clarifying, and elaborating on the existing material (e.g., working out their own ground rules and processes for each of these stages). There are exercises sprinkled throughout, so it also served as a workbook at the retreat and at the Alley bootcamp.

Full disclosure: the first project management workshop was a little rough. In a strict sense I wasn’t disappointed, though, because as with any new workshop, I was prepared for some kinks. (It’s always tough to time new activities.) Furthermore, it was the last workshop on the final day of the retreat, the youth were kind of restless and burnt out from all the work and running around we’d already done, and the creepy cabin we used as a classroom (the “dead animal room”) was not conducive to thoughtful dialogue. I’d assumed that we would finish the chapter on brainstorming rather quickly, but it took us an hour to get through the material. Nothing was too trivial for debate, and in my effort to write down everyone’s opinions, we lagged behind schedule.

It was clear that I had to recalibrate my approach (in business parlance, “pivoting” after “failure”!) for the follow-up session. This was a team effort. Lindsay got feedback from YAB about what they thought could be improved for next time, and the two of us met to discuss some tactics. Here are the ideas we all came up with: Continue reading

The 12 traits of “flourishers”

This is one of the many gems from sociologist Corey Keyes‘s keynote at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood. He was explaining the concept of flourishers: those individuals who report that “every day” or “almost every day” they experience happiness, but less so for emotional reasons (feeling happy) than from psychological and social ones (positive functioning). He listed out the twelve traits that are much more pronounced in flourishers than the rest of the population, and I’m eager to share them with you:

Flourishers…

  • don’t procrastinate
  • have a high degree of self-control 
  • feel highly capable
  • are deliberate (They know what they want out of life.)
  • have a high disposition to apologize (At this point I start raising my eyebrows because I’m five for five.)
  • have a malleable mindset about their own intelligence (They know that they don’t know everything and are open to being wrong.)
  • have higher levels of curiosity (They like to explore and expose themselves to new and challenging situations.)
  • they have an OCEAN personality
    • open (Again, they’re intellectually curious and open to novelty.)
    • conscientious (Again, they are disciplined and planful.)
    • extroverted (This is where I start docking points.) (Also, why do psychologists spell it with an ‘A’?)
    • agreeable (They’re compassionate and cooperative.)
    • not neurotic (Go ahead and dock some more points here.)
  • have an initiative for personal growth (They want to grow and they have a plan for how to go about it.)
  • learn from adversity
  • are motivated by mastery of the process rather than the outcome (They aren’t motivated by money; they’re all about the journey.)
  • feel loved and cared for

Keyes delineates these traits because he is committed to promoting a concept of mental health that is more solid and robust than our current understanding of it as the “absence of mental illness.” He suggests that we design our interventions with an eye to cultivating these traits in our young people. If we truly want to set them up for a life beyond subsistence or even “settling” (this is Keyes’s term for the complacency of the merely “happy”), then we must go above and beyond independent living and job skills and aim for the personal and professional fulfillment of our youth.

For this reason I especially like the last trait. One of the many things I admire about The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is the fact that they codify love in their theory of change and mission. We don’t talk about love with our young people nearly as much as we should.

Lisette Nieves talks multi-contextualism and college persistence

[For Candice and Nahjee] I wish you ladies could have joined me for Lisette’s talk, “Multi-contextualism and the Consumption of Higher Education,” because I know both of you would have really enjoyed it. Giving you a digest below. We can dig into all this more deeply when we see each other next, because I would love to hear your reactions.

Lisette made a very credible case for the dishearteningly low college graduation rates of the latino student population being a result of certain cultural pressures rather than a lack of academic preparedness. In other words, it’s not that latino students aren’t capable of hacking college-level courses; it’s the fact that within the latino community young people take on very adult roles within their families, and this sense of obligation—and very real responsibility—often gets in the way of attending to the competing demands of college life. If we understand young latinos’ desire for parental closeness and their role in contributing to the family income, then all of a sudden the phenomenon of high-achieving latino students dropping out of selective colleges in order to attend the community college close to home makes sense.

What enables Lisette to arrive at these insights is by considering the problem of college persistence through the lens of multi-contextualism.  Continue reading

This was intense for everyone in the room

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Credit: Lindsay Adamski

The second retreat workshop, “Bank Robbery,” came wholesale from MacGregor’s book. It’s an activity designed to lay bare the communication styles of a group by requiring it to solve a crime. Everyone got two or three unique clues, which they had to share orally, without writing anything down or moving around. YAB, in other words, had to talk this one through. And they had 25 minutes to do so.

I had no idea if they were going to be able to figure out the mystery in time, though I informed them that the process would be illuminating either way. YAB spent the first ten minutes trying to arrive at a reasonable method for sharing their clues. They tried going around in a circle, then they attempted to jump around the group by linking seemingly related clues, and then they argued about whose clues were the most important. Lindsay, Amy, and I kept eyeing each other. I don’t think any of us were optimistic about YAB coming to a solution.

But then something happened about halfway through the process. Continue reading

What Do You Bring to the Table?

The neurotic lesson planner in me always arrives to classes or workshops with a surplus of material because as a young teacher one of my biggest nightmares was to run out of things to do and—heaven forfend—have to wing it in the classroom. I went into the YAB retreat hoping to get through three team building activities. All of them were brand new, so I was a little nervous about inaugurating them and seeing how they would come together in practice. In the end we had to cut the 15-minute communication skills activity I’d planned and run a bit into the post-workshop hour. But Amy, Lindsay, and I were all expecting this retreat to be as much a learning experience for us as it would be for YAB, and we ended up being extremely pleased with the results of the team building activities.

We kicked the weekend off with “What Do You Bring to the Table,” a workshop idea I adapted from Mariam MacGregor’s Teambuilding with Teens. I designed this activity as a way for everyone to focus on their fellow YAB members’ strengths and also to learn why they are valued by their peers. Here is how we went about it:  Continue reading